Do we really need another Hulk movie? I was one of the few critics who actually liked Ang Lee's 2003 "Hulk," but it didn't exactly ring the cash registers or clamor for a continuation. "The Incredible Hulk," starring Edward Norton, isn't a sequel to that film – it's more like a rebuke. Lee's movie attempted to get inside the psyche of the Hulkster and, for a Marvel Comics movie, it was surprisingly nuanced.
The new film, directed by Louis Leterrier, the French techno-auteur who gave us the "Transporter" movies, is more of a smash-and-slash affair. This probably bodes well for the franchise but ill for those of us who think the world would be a better place with at least one less conflicted comic book antihero glutting the megaplexes.
The first few minutes of "The Incredible Hulk" whiz by with so much back story that the film appeared to be having a nervous breakdown. This speed-reading exercise is for the benefit of those unknowing initiates in the audience who didn't hear about scientist Bruce Banner's unfortunate exposure to gamma radiation that renders him, when very angry, into the Jolly Green Giant on steroids.
Bruce has been living a reclusive life in Brazil, trying to find a cure for his condition and hiding out from his nemesis, Gen. Thaddeus "Thunderbolt" Ross (William Hurt with a bristly white moustache). The general wants to capture Bruce and harness his power for nefarious military purposes. Thunderbolt's scientist daughter Elizabeth "Betty" Ross – this Ross family has a thing for nicknames – is Bruce's (sort of) paramour, at least whenever they find themselves in the same time zone. But his condition dooms their love, or at least its physical expression, since he goes green every time he gets too excited. No wonder the Hulk is such a favorite of teenage boys.
Teenage boys may also be the reason why, yet again, a scrawny actor is cast as a comic book superhero. Kids want heroes they can identify with – at least until the gamma rays hit. Robert Downey, Jr. as Iron Man was just fine, because, well, Downey is a great actor and most of us would be happy seeing him play anything, even a guy encased in crustacoid armor. But I've never quite gotten my mind around Tobey Maguire as Spider-Man, and Edward Norton, who can be a remarkable actor with a Downey-like intensity, doesn't quite fit the bill, either.
As if to compound the problem, the Hulk has to go up against the Abomination, who looks like a cross between Hulk Hogan and Godzilla and is played, in his street clothes, by Tim Roth, another actor who looks as if he doesn't get to the gym that often.
Roth is scarily effective – he has a great moment when he claps eyes on the Hulk and says, "This is a whole new level of weird" – but maybe it's time for a little counterrevisionism in the superhero genre. Now that we've demonstrated that comic book icons can look like you and me, how about we go back to the Christopher Reeve era when they looked like square-jawed movie stars? Grade: C+ (Rated PG-13 for sequences of intense action violence, some frightening sci-fi images, and brief suggestive content.)